August 16, 2010

"The risk is a debate that erodes public confidence in the importance of our census"

By Grant Burns

As coverage of the debate over the long form census continues into its second month, media dialogue appears to have reduced the matter to the old tried-and-true narratives, in lieu of a more substantive public discussion on why the census is important and what it says about our country and the citizens who live here.

Below is a three-part essay that summarizes the media discussion to date, highlights how public debates on the census in other countries, most notably India, led to a government decision (rather than the other way around) and points to places where Canadians are attempting to broaden the conversation on our own census.


It’s worrying to see the way the media debate is evolving.  Isn’t the census debate more important than pollsters predicting elections, “for it” or “against it” polarizing, jaundiced speculation, and humour that inspires cynicism?

Developments in the census story are increasingly contextualized with new polling data, essentially narrowing the issue into a matter of party popularity. Framed that way, the census, against all odds, becomes an either/or proposition: either you support the government’s changes or you’re against the changes. This, then, invites speculation about the government’s decision and distracts from a discussion about the importance of a census.

In spite of Canadians’ notorious summertime apathy, our national newspapers have been writing about the census daily. This past week was particularly busy for coverage. Late on Tuesday afternoon, CBC’s Kady O’Malley published documents which detailed communications between Statistics Canada, the Privy Council Office and the Ministry of Industry that contradicted previous official statements about StatsCan’s support for the census changes. Effectively, Tony Clement’s earlier claims that chief statistician Munir Sheikh supported the elimination of the mandatory long form census were shown to be untrue.

On Wednesday, the Federal Court agreed to fast-track a hearing of the Federation of Francophone and Acadian communities request for an injunction to prevent the long form census being made voluntary. At day’s end on Wednesday, in response to the court’s decision, the government announced changes to their census plans, adding questions about language to the short form census as well as announcing plans to remove the threat of jail time from all forms of the census.

At the same time, all through the week, there was much speculation on whether the census controversy would lead to an election. The sources of this speculation were representatives at the large polling firms who were answering questions in response to their latest polls which showed, generally, decreasing support for the Conservative party.  The musings forced the election issue into questions put to opposition representatives, specifically NDP leader Jack Layton and senior Liberal Bob Rae, essentially forcing a response. In this way, the census debate has been reduced to a popularity contest. Who’s winning the census debate and will that sway votes?

A second constraint on the census discussion has been the tendency to reduce it to an either/or proposition. As Paul Wells wrote in a recent post on his blog, Canadians are making a choice on this issue: “Either what the Harper government is doing with the long-form census doesn’t matter, or it does.” We can see evidence of picking sides across media. On the one side, Angelo Persichilli, in his latest column at The Hill Times, wrote, “Long or short form, I’m convinced that Canada will survive the changes…” On the other side, an editorial in the Toronto Star argued that the issue is not the country’s survival but rather the destruction of smart demographic data about and for Canadians. “StatsCan used to have a well-deserved global reputation for both accuracy and analysis. But the Conservative government is shackling the agency. The government’s latest move to curtail the census is just another example of ideology trumping common sense.” The back-and-forth sniping by press outlets of opposing political persuasion does little explain the significance of the debate and, in fact, invites speculation.

Since the announcement to make the long form census voluntary, a number of noted columnists have  attempted to explain the government’s decision in the face of seemingly obfuscatory official comments. Jeffrey Simpson’s piece from July 17th, attributed the census decision to the prime minister’s “right-wing ideology and political instinct.” More recently, Toronto Star columnist, Haroon Siddiqui, also wondered about the PM’s motivations, unapologetically using the conditional in his August 12th column: “This may be a matter of ideological faith for him … Or he is stubborn. Or authoritarian, a bully who brooks no dissent.” Paul Saurette, in a column at The Mark, uses a detective’s approach – “the realm of educated speculation” – to take the guesswork on step further, taking the decision to reflect the government’s “epistemological populism.” Finally, in Maclean’s, John Geddes’ much commented-on article about the Harper government’s relationship with experts employs examples from geographers, criminologists and economists to show that this government values “real world experience” over “expert-approved” analysis. Geddes’ final sentence points out the trouble with reducing the census debate to speculation: “It would be even more unexpected if such a seemingly arcane debate sparked a broader one, around the most fundamental questions about the basis on which the government develops and justifies its policies.” While columnists are charged with contextualizing the debate, it seems a disservice is done to the citizens of this country if those opinions reinforce stereotypes of the politically-apathetic Canadian.

Even attempts to add humour can backfire.  All this coverage leads, inevitably, to the lampooning of the census. Saying nothing of the dozens of punned headlines, the satirical Twitter account for the long form census, @LFCensus, languishes on the absurdity of the census debate by asking such ridiculous questions as, “Q. 7527 What is the exact number of spiders in your basement? (I'll wait while you go count them.)” and “Q. 173 If you answered Jedi Knight to the question on religion, can we assume you live in your mother's basement?” While the use of satire in critiquing social issues has its place, satirizing politics has been linked to cynicism.


In many other places, the census is worthy of a more serious public conversation.

For instance, this has been a census year in the United States. It is such a massive effort that the temporary census employees affected unemployment numbers, dropping the rate by 0.2 percent. Rather than speculate about the political philosophy of those who may object to census questions, the New York Times ran stories about communities, especially small communities, committed to returning every census form. The most recent reports about the American census are indicating that the enormous project came in at least $1.6 billion under budget. Clearly, our neighbours to the south put some stock in their census.

 Perhaps the most interesting census this year is India’s. The task of counting the estimated 1.18 billion Indians is far more difficult than counting the roughly 307 million people in the U.S. As The Guardian reported in early June, the work of India’s censuswallahs or “census people” is critical for establishing the gap between rich and poor in world’s largest democracy. The work is also compulsory. For this year’s census, India’s 15th since 1872, the massive exercise has included an acrimonious public debate: should caste be recorded on the census? Opponents argue that the including questions about the ancient system of social stratification would reinforce a tradition that has been made illegal by India’s Constitution. However, supporters contend that measuring caste populations would affect the country’s reservations system, designed to reserve seats in Parliament as well as jobs and school placements for members of lower castes. It is generally believed that the lower castes are underrepresented in India’s government and it’s schools. On August 12, amid furious argument, the Indian government approved including questions about caste on the census.

Comparisons to the tone of the debate in Canada are unavoidable. In India, a country dealing with significant development issues and with the world’s second largest population, a contentious issue led to a public debate which was then followed by a decision from government. 

But the more significant more point is the importance afforded the census. In a June 11th story in the news magazine, Outlook, a columnist described his encounter with a census enumerator, detailing an awkward exchange about his family’s caste. Nevertheless, he described the census project this way:

The census alone, with a population of billion plus people, possesses an altruistic sanctity. No other information that we routinely collect carries this credibility. As a newly-arrived nation of data-peddlers, we collect all kinds of information for a variety of purposes. From selling lemonade and lingerie to predicting election trends, we have become psychologically dependent on surveys. So much so that it has now become a game and a pastime. A little fixing and fudging is welcome. Not so with the process of collecting the census data. You may not always be accurate, but the motive is never suspect. Collecting census data is an unstated ordeal of selflessness and sacrifice.


Marc Garneau, MP for Westmount-Ville-Marie, echoed this sentiment in a recent op-ed column in the National Post. “My country does many things for me and it’s only fair that I reciprocate. I do not start from the premise that the state has no business in my life and that it should get out my face. That’s a selfish approach.”

Others have used this as an opportunity to remind Canadians of what is required for good government.  David Eaves argued in the Globe and Mail that the issue is not the country’s survival but rather the effectiveness and efficiency of Canada’s government. “This is a direct attack on the ability of government to make smart decisions. In fact it is an attack on evidence based public policy,” wrote Eaves. 

The government’s decision has also provoked an unusual outpouring from civil society.  Data Libre has compiled a list of the nearly 300 citizens’ groups, professional organizations and governments who’ve spoken out, for or against, the proposed changes.

Our census, both long and short forms, is important, in the same way that censuses in other countries are important. While there are differences in the ways in which they are conducted, the data collected and the uses to which it is put, they are indisputably central to the governing of Canada.

Rather than narrow the debate, coverage of this issue in our media should broaden the scope of the conversation beyond the parochial concerns of partisan sniping. As John Ibbitson has noted, there is a risk that this debate erodes public confidence in the importance of our census.


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August 16, 2010 19:50 PM

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Chantal James

August 16, 2010 20:47 PM

Good essay.

In Canada there is a polarization on the subject. People "for " the census speak of the need for the data and it's value in formulating smart government policy. People "against" the decision talk of their rights and coercion, and does a group have the right to demmand an individual answer questions about their life against their will, under threat of fine and jail.

So what's more important, the group/state/country/collective or the rights of the individual? Hasn't this question been played out countless times over the centuries around the world? How was this question settled? I guess it depends which country you live in. Some countries certainly protect the rights of the individual over the right of the group a lot better than others.

If you study sociology or antropology or philosophy, it is easy to identify these concepts in other populations/countries/ historical periods, but every population and individual is blind to these concepts in their own group. What do you do when the truth of your group conflicts with the truth of an individual?

"StatsCan does great work for Canada."  (Truth for our group/Country/population.)

"I'll ask the economists, politicians, and government agencies to keep their unwanted, uncomfortable questions off of me."  (Truth for the single mother who feels uncomfortable with the questions the census informs her she must answer, and refuses to answer.)

Hence this debate, because the existence of people who don't answer the census questions, or answer them incorrectly, or write "object to question" for the reply poses an inconvenient truth for the group ("us Canadians").

Some people are even saying that people who object to the questions don't really exist. I'd be careful with that line of thought.

Just sayin'

August 17, 2010 01:49 AM

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Pot, kettle «  You Shall Know My Veracity

August 17, 2010 01:53 AM

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Karen Krisfalusi

August 17, 2010 03:30 AM

I think this writer has grossly misunderstood the media narrative of the census issue.  It's 'all-out attack'. That's because public debate is not what is required here.  The activists don't get the podijm just yet.  Public exposure of Harper's motivation for the change (electoral gain) is the ticket.  As with the issue of how Stephen Harper has attacked the Office of the Auditor General, his attack on the authority of statistical data is an issue so repugnant to the sensibilities of all that we need to emphasize that point HARD.  That's what we want our media to do and that's what they're doing.  

Who is 'the media' in this writer's view?  David Eaves who is mentioned here is an activist who was onside with Harper in his disdain for the Office of the Auditor General.  "Let Us Audit Parliament's Books" he cried.  Cause that serves his activist agenda.  This writer should be careful to understand which media sources are having the most play in this narrative.  The Big Guns are running this show!  And in my view they are doing a GREAT JOB!!!

This writer is premature to call for public debate and expect the census narrative to propose that right now.  Parliament and the media are working hard to expose the true story.  That's as far as they can get to open the envelope of truth because Harper is working his secrecy tactics with the Industry Committee looking into this.  The only criticism I can make of the census narrative thus far is that Parliament's work to expose the truth is lacking and late.  As to how the narrative is wending into election speculation and other stories, please see my blog where I explain that bit.

August 17, 2010 08:26 AM

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August 18, 2010 01:06 AM

Census, media and the public debate: a response

Census, media and the public debate: a response


August 23, 2010 09:59 AM

The author is worried about the "risk that this debate erodes public confidence in the importance of our census."  In taking this angle, he gives away quite a lot about his position, and I expect more than he means to say or admit to. To wit: "the importance of our census" is beyond debate for him. No point engaging with him in a debate about the importance of the census, and how important it is relative to other things that might also matter, like privacy (the right to be let alone, not to be required to give details of your personal life upon threat of penalty, etc.) for example. Having arrived at his conclusion already and concerned less with the quality of debate than ensuring that his conclusion prevails, of course he will be worried about debate. After all, having been exposed to debate about the issue Canadians might come to the conclusion either or both that: a) the census is less important than he believes it to be; and b) as important as the census is, other things are even more important.  Debate is like that: if debate is genuine and robust, it is always possible that the side you favour will lose or be diminished by consideration of opposing views.  For my part, I think debate is very important and means more to us as a free and democratic society than the census does. Any debate worth having poses a risk to people who have convictions. And any conviction worth having is not worth having if one is not willing to subject it to debate.

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